In November 2016 I was invited to present a lecture at the historic Leeds Theosophical Society, founded in 1900. The lodge building is located in a small square a short distance from the bustle of the city centre. As I have noticed is often the case with Theosophical lodges, upon stepping through the doors one is overcome with an immense sense of stillness and peace which contrasts sharply with the flurry and commotion of city life.
The meeting hall was arranged much like any other Theosophical lodge – with rows of chairs spanning the room and facing a desk at the far end where the speaker (in this case, myself) would be seated. Flanking the desk on either side were carefully stacked volumes of Theosophical literature, consisting of the usual classics, alongside some lesser-known works. What caught my gaze, however, was not the stunning pokerwork that graced the lodge walls, nor the aesthetic layout of the meeting hall with its neat orderliness and art nouveau style. Rather, I found my eyes instantly drawn towards the back of the hall, where behind the desk a large stained-glass window overlooked the room with a vividness that demanded one’s utmost attention.
Crowning the window was an epitaph, stating “Peace to All Beings” with the year 1920. I would later learn that this Peace Window was commissioned to commemorate the end of World War I. Encircled by the iconic ouroboros, at the top of the image a male figure gazes back at the beholder, his head contained within an upper triangle while his feet stand in the lower triangle of the waters of Space. One is reminded of the seal of the Theosophical Society, where the same symbolism of spirit and Matter is depicted. The middle portion of the image is filled with his wings, these providing a sense of motion and rhythm to that brings the art to life.
At his breast, a winged Isis veils his face from the figures illustrated below. At his heart, an initiate looks down at the events below. Crowned figures, clothed in red, assume the role of guardians, casting down those not yet ready for the higher levels along the path. Those aspirants who, having attained the necessary purification in the quest for the higher life have been admitted to the higher levels, are overshadowed by a white flame. In the midst of the scene are two children, representing purity, and passing up unopposed towards the initiate above. Below, at the centre of the image, the slain dragon of maya – the illusions of the lower self – lies conquered by the pilgrim-knight who crosses the body of the dragon as a bridge between the bondages of the lower self and the freedom of the higher.
On either side of the knight, aspirants aim towards the higher path. A woman has stumbled to her knees and is assisted by another who is clothed in the white robe of compassion. On the other side, a seeker is deceived by the false light of a shadowy figure, who leads him toward a perilous precipice. One is reminded, in this particular, of the Fool of the Major Arcana. Another aspirant, her strength diminished, has fallen beside him, and yet is illumined by a ray of light which promises another life to come. Below this scene is the underworld, in which a child is receiving the necessary gifts for embarking upon the path – the sword of power, the helmet of knowledge, and the armour which is forged by karma and experience.
I would later learn that the Peace Window was based on a painting by Reginald Machell, an English artist who was associated with Madame Blavatsky and who joined the Theosophical Society in 1888. An artist of many mediums, Machell did some interior decoration in Blavatsky’s residence at Regents Park and later relocated his studio to the same building, where his work would begin to take on its uniquely mystical flavour. In 1900, Machell moved to Point Loma where he crafted furniture for the Theosophical community there, much of which was used in the community plays and events.
The Path – the painting on which the Peace Window is based – hangs in the headquarters of the Theosophical Society (Pasadena). Machell summarised the rich symbolism of the painting in the following words:
“THE PATH is the way by which the human soul must pass in its evolution to full spiritual self-consciousness.”